Sean nós, the harp and art music

Sean nós, the harp and art music

Classical music is the art music tradition of Europe, and for the longest time I wondered why Ireland wasn’t a part of or contributor to said music. After much thought about this very topic, I’ve come to the conclusion that it didn’t need to. It has it’s own art music tradition, Sean nós and harp compositions. Whereas Scotland has it’s Ceol mór that lies with the pipes. That made me wonder about what can be considered art music in Ireland. The old style of singing is very complex even though it seems so simple. Unfortunately I have to go to work now, so I will elaborate more in a bit, but these are the exact same thoughts of the one and only Seán Ó Riada.

Re: Sean nós, the harp and art music

Ireland has actually had plenty of contributions to classical music! While not written by an Irishman, one of the most well-known classical pieces of all time was premiered at a charity concert in Dublin in 1742:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IUZEtVbJT5c&ab_channel=RoyalChoralSoc


An incomplete listing of Irish composers includes

- Charles Villiers Standford https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dhHS23qczK8&ab_channel=KuhlauDilfeng4


- Hamilton Harty https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k6iag2N5ytw&ab_channel=miljkmi


- John Field https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=THcwK2LXsSE&ab_channel=ElizabethJoyRoe-Topic


- Augusta Holmes (lived in France but her father was from Youghal) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=871eJp3lhUs&ab_channel=RobertoPintos


Plenty, plenty, more, and there are a lot of Irish composers living and working today.

The issue is that classical music, and especially the “canon” of what we consider “great” classical composers, is just a fraction of the composers who have actually existed. Classical music has also always been heavily dominated by Germanic influence, and so that canon is largely weighted not only towards German and Austrian composers, but towards composers who worked in the same forms and with the same philosophies as the Austro-German trends. So, we’re less likely to hear about Irish composers, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t been around and made wonderful contributions!

As for what is or isn’t considered “art music,” it’s a distinction that has very little usefulness and is generally applied in order to put certain musics on a pedestal of privilege over others (classical music being a prime example). Better to use your breath singing/playing than arguing over what does and doesn’t constitute “art music!”

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That’s true. I didn’t think about John Field

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I always thought of “Art” music as a catch all term for “serious” music that begins life with a score, as opposed to most pop or folk music. So “Art” includes Baroque, Classical, Romantic, etc.

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Re “St Patrick’s Breastplate” (posted here), this tune is a hybrid of 2 traditional Irish tunes - set by Irish classical composer Stanford. It makes for a lovely tune and I have plugged it and will do so again as St Patrick’s Day is coming up soon!!! (Words splendid also).

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Does Turlough O’ Carolan not count as a ‘serious’ composer? His music was written for the landed gentry in their big houses, not the fishermen and tenant farmers in their crofts……………

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“Ireland has its own art music tradition…harp compositions. Whereas Scotland has its Ceol mór that lies with the pipes. “

Be aware that these are two branches of the same ancient Gaelic music tradition. Ceol Mor was harp music long before the pipes came to Gaeldom from Europe. Happily in Scotland pipers had adapted it to the pipes before the harping tradition died out.

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Who said anything about people not being ‘serious’ composers?

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I see. I didn’t know that.

Every culture has an art music tradition it usually has more rules and guidelines than the folk traditions, but they usually borrow from each other. Like the folk music of Europe borrowed the Scales from Classical which borrowed its scales from the church modes. Classical is an evolution of the church music using the same scales and counterpoint rules and everything. Irish Sean nós is a different evolution of the same church music with different rules for composition and expression. Ceol Mór is the same way. Different evolution of the same system.

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“Who said anything about people not being ‘serious’ composers?”

Nobody did. “Serious” music is one of there names used to lump European “Art” music together. Also called “Classical” (which, confusingly, also refers to the period c.1750-1820) and, perhaps more contentiously, “Cultivated”.
Calling one type of music “Serious” doesn’t imply that other types of music are not serious, but they might not be “Serious”, if you catch my drift.

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The art music of Ireland before The Flight of Earls was significantly different than what we see in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Poets would compose long epic poems, reciters would recite them to harp accompaniment. That music was lost history, and we’ll never know what it sounded like. It certainly was nothing like the Mary O’Hara style song with harp accompaniment that came out of the twentieth century, in fact it may not have been like singing as we know it at all. There were also harp ceol mor pieces from this period that were as complicated as any pibroch, but those, too, have been lost to history.

The music that sprung up afterward was an attempt to please the landed gentry who took over rule of Ireland after the Gaelic Aristocracy was exiled. Much of it is an attempt to blend Irish styles with baroque European styles, with O’Carolan’s compositions being the most extreme examples of this. The harp struggled on into the mid nineteenth century before giving way to the Neo-Irish harp, which is derived from the continental harp tradition. Edward Bunting was able to save most of the later harp tunes, although almost nothing from before The Flight of Earls survived for him to save, including the old ceol mor sets, and his classical education prevented him form preserving some of the Irish stylistic elements of the tunes which he did preserve.

The situation for art music in Scotland was similar, except the harp tradition died out completely after The Battle of Culloden. Pipers adapted the old ceol mor music to their instruments, as did fiddlers, although fiddle pibroch gets a lot less attention than pipe pibroch. The tunes faired far worse than they did in Ireland- with no Edward Bunting to save them, only a few dozen survive in 16th and 17th century lute manuscripts and 18th century fiddle manuscripts, and these are all filtered through the bias of the musicians who recorded them.

So certainly Ireland and Scotland had their own art music traditions, but most of it was lost, and what we have left is very fragmentary. There are those who are trying to reconstruct it, such as Ann Heymann and Simon Chadwick, but their efforts will always inevitably fall short.

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Very nicely written, but you are forgetting one of the most important influences on Ireland and her music. The church. Developed in 100 A.D. plainchant very likely played a huge role in the development of the Irish tradition, as the Roman Catholic church landed in Ireland Circa 600 A.D It probably sounded a bit similar, for this was the music that the church used to convert people. A sort of propaganda if you will. A very melodic unaccompanied style passed on by ear to the people. Many of them left up to the improvisation of the singer. I just cannot for the life of me see Irish music without the Church modes; therefore, making it recognizable to a Western ear. To say it was probably nothing like the sean nós singing we know today just doesn’t sound accurate to me. I mean of course it evolved, but I would see that drastic change as happening when the church landed in Ireland no earlier nor later. The music we know today as sean nós is very similar to the church music. When would you say this change occurred?

Perhaps most of it has been lost, but some has been preserved.

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@Lonnie the Harper re: “fiddle pibroch gets a lot less attention than pipe pibroch.” Would you be able to provide a link to or a suggestion-as-to-where-to-find samples of ‘fiddle pibroch’? I’m wondering if that is a new-to-me type of Scottish fiddle music or if it’s something I’m familiar with by some other name ….

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Thanks, The Boy, etc. I gather from the comments - his and others - on the vid. that that would be it. Wish I could hold the fiddle like that, but my arms are too short or something - I’ve had to settle with plugging up my left ear … !

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Adding to Lonnie’s remarks.. With the dearth of material from this late-medieval period, the Ap Huw manuscript is important as it represents the “earliest European body of music expressly for the harp…This is the only source of Welsh bardic cerdd dant music, some of it considered to date from the 14th century.” As such, it’s a focus of research for many players today (including myself). While of Wesh origin, it may offer some idea of the aesthetic from the period elsewhere in the Isles.

Re fiddle pibroch - Bonnie Rideout has made many recordings of such.

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Re: Sean nós, the harp and art music

To add to the list of classical Irish composers there is John Crawford who composed Gweedore Brae.
This composition, commissioned by Fritz Kriesler, was for violin and piano accompaniment. I have the original score in Crawford’s own hand and another “Irish hornpipe”. Gweedore Brae was recorded by Kriesler and by many other violinist. The other composition has never been recorded. The Gweedore Brae score is dedicated to his friend Humbert Craig (one of Irelands leading painters and president of the Hiberian Society). Humbert Craig in addition to painting was an accomplished violinist. They also had a passion for fishing and would go off into the wilds of Donegal. Many of Craig’s landscapes are of loughs and fishing scenes in Donegal.

I am looking for a permanent music library (preferably in Ireland) to donate both scores to any suggestions?

I do not know if ther is a suitable file format for me to post both scores on the session website can this be done?

I think that having a knowledge of Irish trad would greatly help in the correct playing of the tunes and if I can post a copy of the scores on the session website those with classical violin skills will find both compositions enjoyable one of the sections of Gweedore Brae is tour de force in double stopping and is a technical challenge for any violinist.

I have not been able to find much about John Crawford and he seems to have been a one hit wonder with the sucess of his tune “Gweedore Brae” anyone got any more knowledge about him?

Re: Sean nós, the harp and art music

As for fiddle pibroch, Daniel Dow’s collection provides a number of examples of fiddle pibroch; the aforementioned Bonnie Rideout recordings were mostly drawn from that source. Here’s the link:

https://www.wirestrungharp.com/library/daniel_dow/

To be clear, so far as we know, the style of singing/chanting that poets did was most likely not Sean Nos singing, but something unique in and of itself. Perhaps there were commonalities, the fact is we don’t really know. Most likely Irish poetic recitation would have been fairly metrically rigid, unlike Sean Nos singing. We know that the Irish poems of this period followed strict and complicated rules of poetic meter, and that would have probably been reflected in the way it was performed. I admit I omitted talking about Sean Nos singing from my earlier comment because it’s not my area of expertise. Janet Harbison told me that Sean Nos singing is derived from the Norman troubadour tradition, brought to Ireland in the twelfth century, when Ireland was conquered by the Normans, although there is certainly a fair amount of ecclesiastical influence on the genre as well, and it has evolved beyond it’s Norman roots to become a completely Irish idiom.

Right you are Catty, the Ap Huw manuscript is of great importance in understanding early Celtic music, as it is the earliest known written collection of harp music anywhere in Europe. Additionally, the Welsh harpers were said to have learned this style of playing from the Irish harpers. However, the earliest specimens of Irish harp playing sound drastically different than the AP Huw pieces, so that story should probably be taken with a grain of salt. Regardless, the Ap Huw Manuscript provides the only known example of harp Ceol Mor, or as the Welsh called it, Cerdd Dant (the art of the string), containing harp tunes with full variation sets. I’ve played through some of tunes from the manuscript, it really is completely different than anything else I’ve ever played.

There are numerous videos of music from the manuscript on YouTube, here are a few:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Kom3ZhQ7Lg


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SYVb65ly-hM


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qV6NOyZWe8E&t=58s


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bkIGnvvTb34


As you can see, it’s very different from what we’re used to in Irish trad, although there are commonalities with both Irish and Scottish music, particularly lowland Scottish music. Unfortunately, the traditional harp playing of Wales has evolved so much since Robert AP Huw’s time that it is completely unrecognizable. Not that I don’t love Welsh traditional harp playing in it’s own right, but it owes a lot to continental music. At least we have The AP Huw Manuscript to give us a glimpse into the past.

In contrast, here is the oldest piece of Irish harp music that we have, taken down by Edward Bunting from the playing of Denis Hempson, which he learned from his teacher, who learned it from her teacher.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kS9Wn5Qyc6U


This is a tuning prelude, and in fact it is only half of the prelude- Hempson refused to play the second half, for whatever reason. It would’ve been performed immediately before the reciter started singing his poem. Quite different from what we get from Robert Ap Huw.

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“I have not been able to find much about John Crawford and he seems to have been a one hit wonder with the sucess of his tune “Gweedore Brae” anyone got any more knowledge about him?”

“do you mean John Crowther?”

Interestingly (to me, anyhow) “Crowther” is an occupational surname, like Archer or Carpenter, meaning “Fiddler”.

Re: Sean nós, the harp and art music

Very interesting Lonnie

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Yes i did mean John Crowther, sorry for the confusion.
I think Crowther is his real name as his friend Humbert Craig married an artist called Beth Crowther possibly john’s sister

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DonaldK wrote: “Calling one type of music “Serious” doesn’t imply that other types of music are not serious”.
Oh yes it does. I’ve heard the antonym “trivial music” used by a professor at the Royal College of Music in Stockholm. Anyone who uses the term “serious music” is very prejudiced.

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That may be so, Henrik, but I would still contend that the name “Serious” does not imply other types of music are not serious. There may be some musical snobs who infer that other types of music are not serious, but inference is not quite the same as implication.

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That’s not how language works, DonaldK. If you call something “serious” then it does indeed imply that things you are *not* calling with that label are not serious.

I’m with Henrik, and this is also something that has thankfully been called out and is changing, albeit slowly.

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I think the term art music is more accurate. Art music- that is, music for it’s own sake, as opposed to a jig or a reel, which is used for a practical purpose, such as dancing. Maybe the term practical music should be more common in musical circles. Perhaps that is less prejudiced.

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Nico, coming from a mathematical background, I’ll just have to disagree. But, anyway, I don’t take the name “Serious” literally - it’s just a name (which I don’t personally use) to me - like “Heavy Metal” isn’t made of lead or whatever.

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There is music that is not “Serious” but that doesn’t mean it’s not serious, if you get what I mean.

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I’m coming from an engineering background, and still saying you’re wrong.

You can disagree all you want, but it doesn’t make you right. When you label something, and don’t use that label for something else, then it definitely has an implication. For instance, if I said that Henrik was smart, and said that the label doesn’t apply to you, then it would definitely imply you weren’t smart. I’m not saying that, but hopefully the personal approach will help you see the pejorative nature of calling music that isn’t traditional or folk music “Serious”, while denying that label for traditional and folk music.

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Trouble is, I don’t believe there is any label that is not problematic in some way; if you want to talk about this stuff at all, you have to use clumsy labels. If someone says, ‘art music’, ‘serious music’, ‘Classical music’, you know what they mean - but you can always challenge the label - but if you’re going to do that, you should have a superior label ready, unless you want to fall back on some old saw such as, “There’s only two kinds of music: good and bad” (not to be confused with “Country AND Western”), just to shut down the conversation, if that’s your goal.

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I don’t have a problem with certain types of music being described as ‘serious’. The dictionary defines ‘serious’ as ‘demanding careful consideration… requiring deep reflection.’ Lots of great music doesn’t demand or require those things; for example, dance music inspires joyous physical engagement instead, which is a different but equally valuable quality. And ‘serious’ isn’t necessarily a positive description, either - it could be a criticism in some contexts.

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The thing about language is that there’s often more than one meaning behind a word. For instance:
https://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/serious
Note further down:
“ informal
very good of its type“

Agreed that most of these labels are clumsy, but using “Classical” (or Western European Classical to be slightly more exact) is at least just clumsy and not pejorative. “Art” music isn’t great because it’s even less descriptive, since all music is art, and the connotations could be pejorative (“trad music isn’t art” definitely comes across as pejorative). “Serious” is just an all around bad term, because it *is* pejorative, inherently, whether you like it or not, and it’s not at all descriptive.

Sorry to JoeEvans, but all music, including dance music, can definitely need or deserve complete attention (see first link) or be “showing, or characterized by deep thought” or “of grave or somber disposition, character, or manner” or “being in earnest; sincere; not trifling”, or just “requiring thought, concentration, or application”, and for me personally, Irish traditional music is definitely “weighty or important”
(all the rest are from https://www.dictionary.com/browse/serious )

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I actually enjoy this part of the dialectic. Albeit, I majored in Art theory/criticism at uni. Having that, I naturally have a lot of material to consider as to the parameters of “art”; what it means, what constitutes such, values, etc. I tend toward rather rigorous parameters. One prominent aesthetician, Susan Langer, posed that “all art is necessarily abstract” - to give some fodder for discourse. Considering all the many meanings, purposes and functions of art, we have all manner of approach as to whether to consider a given music as art - it can be quite broad, or narrow as we want. Language is indeed problematic, given the dimensions of phenomena and representation.

No wonder it was all boiled down to simply - “legit” music vs everything else. 🙂

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Don’t get me started on “legit” - as pejorative a term as “serious”.

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The question is why did ceol mór die out in Ireland and persist in Scotland? Is it because of the adaptation to the bagpipes?